By Robert Tapfumaneyi
AS economic inequalities increase in Zimbabwe, the country’s once thriving middle class has been swept away by the tide of economic turmoil, visiting United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver has said.
According to Elver, civil servants, among them doctors, nurses and teachers are no longer able to feed their families without alternative sources of income.
“Many of the people I spoke to in Harare told me that they could only afford one meal a day,” Elver told journalists in Harare Friday.
“I witnessed the consequences of the disastrous economic crisis on the streets of Harare, with people spending long hours queuing for fuel, as well in front of banks to get cash, and in shops to obtain cooking gas or water.”
She added: “The Zimbabweans I spoke to in Harare and its suburbs explained that even if food is generally available in supermarkets, the erosion of their incomes combined with skyrocketing inflation now conservatively pegged at around 490%, has made them food insecure.”
The UN envoy said there has been a growing tide of rural urban-rural migration as citizens seek survival strategies.
“Waves of people have escaped from poor agricultural productivity rural areas to cities in search of job opportunities to improve their access to sufficient and adequate food and other public services.
“Most of them end up living in the informal settlements that are multiplying in the suburbs of Harare. Among other risks, spreadable diseases are likely to increase due to the use of unsafe and inefficient water and open sewage,” she said.
The UN envoy also visited some slum settlements on the southern fringes of the capital where she witnessed the sorry sight that has become their daily lives.
“Approximately 5000 people were living in inhuman conditions without any infrastructure, without jobs, without hope, and help.
“Most of the public schools in Harare are no longer able to continue their school feeding programmes. At best, some schools are able to offer one meal a week per classroom,” said Elver.
Zimbabwe’s public health system has all but collapsed and Elver bore witness to this as well.
“The dieticians and paediatricians I met at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare explained to me that the death of children from malnutrition had been on the rise in the last few months.
“I have myself witnessed the ravaging effects of malnutrition on infants deprived of breast milk and micronutrient supplementation because of their own mothers’ lack of access to adequate food,” said the UN envoy.
“Children are often fed with maize porridge or sadza, which are not sufficiently nutritious. At times, they eat some portion of vegetables, mostly cabbage.
“I received disturbing information that public hospitals have been reaching out to humanitarian organisations after their own food stocks were exhausted and medical equipment no longer operational.”
Zimbabwe’s public health practitioners have been on strike for the last three months demanding better working conditions. Government has reacted by firing most of them.
Said Elver: “The most vulnerable segments of society, including the elderly, children and women are forced to rely upon coping mechanisms such as school dropout, early marriage, and sex trade to obtain food, behavioural patterns that often are accompanied by domestic violence.”